Caught up in pulling together today’s government affairs-focused issue of Craft Brew News, a series of comments late in President Obama’s State of the Union resonated. Speaking of “partisanship and gridlock” in Washington, and those who “benefit” from it, the President invoked an American public fed up with the politicians who serve them. “This isn’t what you signed up for,” he paraphrased the sentiment of some legislators in the audience. So, “imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.”
Breaking the patterns. Approaching politics differently. My mind immediately went to Florida, where small brewers have used grassroots efforts to garner the support of vocal beer drinkers (and constituents) to achieve their political goals. “Grassroots” is in no way “new,” though it does run counter to status quo. For the past two legislative sessions, even grassroots hasn’t succeeded and questions remain about how impactful the public will be on beer policy in Florida. But some seem to believe things will go differently this year. Small brewers in Florida have started expressing some of the same idealism that President Obama offered Tuesday night.
While not spoken, the president of the Florida Brewers Guild and Due South Brewing owner Mike Halker gave his own sort of SOTU: an in-depth explanation of where small brewers in Florida stand, what they want and what they’re up against. Mike posted the missive to Due South’s blog, specifically noting that he wrote it “not as the president of the FBG, but just as a guy in the middle of it all.” In it, Mike lays out the “complicated” picture of beer politics in his state, giving voice to observers that ask “‘When will this be over?’ The short answer is, probably never,” he answers before launching into his view of the business of politics in Florida and how it’s affected small brewers there.
He notes that the FBG’s “prior weakness has little to do with the reason we don’t have 64 oz growlers.” Instead, “it’s the strength of our opponent.” Mixing a perhaps idealistic hope for the success of brewers’ rabble rousing with a little rabble rousing itself, he adds that “the reason it’s going to pass this year is not because we’re so much stronger, it’s that we’ve successfully painted them as the bastards they are. Not by ourselves mind you, but by engaging the craft beer supporters in Florida.” He concludes the thought by asking readers to “believe me, after last session, there are legislators walking around the capital right now thinking, ‘Just don’t piss off the craft brewers.’” At same time big brewers and wholesalers alike still have plenty of clout in Tallahassee (and elsewhere), clout that will not be easily eroded. They probably won’t like being called “bastards” either. In any case, smashmouth seems to be becoming more common, even if the tactic’s success rate is unclear at best.
But don’t assume for a minute that small brewers in Florida depend solely on the support of the public. Just as they’ve used traditional press and new technology to bring public scrutiny to the kinds of conversations often reserved for back rooms at the capital, pulling the game out into the open, the brewers “have better relationships with legislators,” are “more organized and connected.” The same could be said of many other small brewer associations across the country, including the nationally focused Brewers Association. Even politically, the craft segment is growing both ways: digging out smaller niches and going more mainstream. As it spreads wider, putting feet on the ground to gain support in more areas, it attempts to bring politics back to a future where constituents have more pull than campaign donations. At the same time, it’s becoming more sophisticated and savvy at playing by the current rules.
2015 could be a year when these dual strategies will be tested: if not nationally, then perhaps in Florida.